A sense of the Showa era floated inside the heavy gates of Tekigaiso, the mansion that was home to prewar Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe (See below).
The one-story wooden mansion was built in 1927 by Tatsukichi Irisawa, a court physician of the then Imperial Household Ministry, in Ogikubo, Suginami Ward. Ogikubo was a popular area for vacation homes on the outskirts of Tokyo at the time.
Konoe purchased it 10 years later, and elder statesman Kinmochi Saionji named it Tekigaiso.
"We originally lived in an area that is now a part of Chiyoda Ward, but because we had visitors so often, our father decided to move to Ogikubo, thinking nobody would visit us there," Konoe's second son, Michitaka, once said.
Ogikubo has changed into a residential area over the years. After you pass through the busy shopping avenue in front of Ogikubo Station and walk south for a while, you will see a property partially hidden by trees. Its atmosphere is quite different from the surrounding area.
The garden was gradually sold off after the war, but there are still about 6,000 square meters of land attached to the house. You can hear the rustling of leaves once you enter the property, which is located on an airy hill.
Important cabinet meetings were held at Tekigaiso before the war, making it a politically significant location.
"The front door was illuminated by bright electrical lamps, making it seem like daytime. The newspaper companies' cars made long lines, and the place was besieged by over 100 reporters. The bustle reminded me of a shrine during a summer festival."
That is how former Justice Minister Akira Kazami, a close aide to Konoe, described the front of Tekigaiso when the second Konoe Cabinet was inaugurated. I could almost visualize the "prime minister's official residence" in its prime.
In July 1940, just before the inauguration of the second Konoe Cabinet, Yosuke Matsuoka and Hideki Tojo were invited to Tekigaiso for the so-called Ogikubo meeting, where they discussed how to strengthen co-operation with Germany and Italy. Matsuoka became foreign minister in the Cabinet and Tojo became army minister.
The Imperial Rule Assistance Association was inaugurated that October. Konoe prepared its declaration and programme with Yoriyasu Arima, who became the first secretary general of the political organisation, at Tekigaiso.
Japan followed a road of tragedy after that.
The living room where Konoe took poison and committed suicide on Dec. 16, 1945, the day he was ordered to appear as a war criminal, was called the "lord's room." It is a 12-tatami Japanese-style room, and the boarded ceiling and alcove remain as they were that day.
From the night before committing suicide until the hours before daybreak, Konoe talked with his second son, Michitaka, about how he exerted himself in negotiations with the United States. Konoe wrote a will, saying, "My aim is well known only to a few."
The room felt as if it was filled with the regret of the prime minister, who was criticised as weak before the war and blamed as a war criminal after the war.
When you look out of the window of the lord's room, you can see an open space covered with grass below. It is said that it was a Japanese-style garden with a pond in Konoe's time. Although the Konoe family still owned the property after the war, Suginami Ward has worked to preserve the property. The ward office purchased it in 2014 and opened the grassy space to the public on March 14.
Currently, the property is surrounded by apartment buildings, and there is no longer anything that reminds you of the times of Konoe. I stood on the historical site and thought about the 70 years that have gone by.
Mixture of East and West
Tekigaiso, a one-story wooden mansion, was designed by Chuta Ito, who had a PhD in engineering and designed Meiji Jingu shrine and Tsukiji Honganji temple.
In the structure, one occasionally comes across elaborate Chinese-style designs within the Japanese-style designs of the ceiling and doors. In the latter half of the Meiji period, Ito went on an architectural trip - which was rare back in those days - to China, India and the Middle East. What he saw during his trip was said to have been reflected in his later designs.
The ceiling of the drawing room is high, as in Western-style buildings. One reason appears to be the fact that the client, Tatsukichi Irisawa, advocated a western lifestyle with chairs.
After purchasing Tekigaiso, Konoe altered it to the more Japanese style he preferred, including the "lord's room," where he committed suicide.
"Konoe had a study room with very Japanese tastes that was built in his later years. The design of the whole house was like a tea-ceremony house and very Japanese," said Yoriyasu Arima, one of Konoe's close aides.
The room where Konoe held meetings with cabinet members, together with the entrance and the drawing room, were moved after the war to the premises of the Tenrikyo religious group's Tokyo branch office in Komagome, Tokyo.
The current building area of Tekigaiso is approximately 400 square meters. The structures in Ogikubo and Komagome are not open to the public, so we were given special permission to visit them for this article.
However, the external appearance of the structure in Ogikubo can be seen from the grassy space, and starting from this autumn, part of the interior of the mansion is scheduled to be opened to the public during events.
Konoe was born in 1891 to a ducal family that belonged to the Fujiwara clan. A tall man with a gentle bearing, Konoe was popular and was elected prime minister three times in prewar years. However, the Tripartite Pact and the invasion of French Indochina during the Konoe Cabinet are said to be the primary reasons Japan was pulled into World War II. After the war, Konoe was ordered by the United States to appear as a war criminal. He committed suicide by taking poison at Tekigaiso.